The Unfinished Life of Edgar Allan Poe

lighthouse-1495186-1280x960Today, 166 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe departed this world for the next, leaving us breathless for more, and the internet is abuzz with his mysterious death. A few people truly care, but most are simply riding the hashtag wave until the next big trend. This post is for the former, not the latter.

I always wonder what else Poe might have written had he not died so tragically young at the age of forty. Would he have invented another genre? Produced brilliant offspring? While we may never know the answers, we can draw  conclusions about the direction of his prose before his death. The clues lie in an unfinished manuscript unofficially titled, “The Lighthouse.”

“The Lighthouse” is about a man appointed to a remote island with only his dog, Neptune, by his side. Feeling creeped out already? Yeah, me, too. Unlike the main character in The Martian, another tale of isolation and survival, Poe’s hero revels in his solitude. But the master hints at impending doom by calling attention to the chalk foundation of the lighthouse. Can disaster be far behind?

You may read the entire manuscript on the E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore’s website. But here is an excerpt, Poe’s final words:

Jan. 3. A dead calm all day. Towards evening, the sea looked very much like glass. A few sea-weeds came in sight; but besides them absolutely nothing all day — not even the slightest speck of cloud. . . . . . . . Occupied myself in exploring the light-house . . . . It is a very lofty one — as I find to my cost when I have to ascend its interminable stairs — not quite 160 feet, I should say, from the low-water mark to the top of the lantern. From the bottom inside the shaft, however, the distance to the summit is 180 feet at least: — thus the floor is 20 feet below the surface of the sea, even at low-tide . . . . . . It seems to me that the hollow interior at the bottom should have been filled in with solid masonry. Undoubtedly the whole would have been thus rendered more safe: — but what am I thinking about? A structure such as this is safe enough under any circumstances. I should feel myself secure in it during the fiercest hurricane that ever raged — and yet I have heard seamen say occasionally, with a wind at South-West, the sea has been known to run higher here than any where with the single exception of the Western opening of the Straits of Magellan. No mere sea, though, could accomplish anything with this solid iron-riveted wall — which, at 50 feet from high-water mark, is four feet thick, if one inch . . . . . . . . The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk . . . . . .

Jan. 4. [[. . . . Here, the manuscript fragment ends.]]

The Griswold family sold the first page of the manuscript at auction, keeping the last three pages for themselves. Oh, don’t get me started on the Griswolds… The work was finally published in its entirety in 1949. Many authors have tried to complete it. As you might guess, they were pale attempts. Some critics think the story is complete and that Poe meant to end it this way (the unfinished entry implies the keeper fell to his death). I have my doubts. Poe usually terrified readers a lot more before releasing them.

Now here’s the interesting part: some critics say Poe’s flowery prose had been pared down for this story, giving the narration a “plain spoken” feel. Was this the next incarnation of his writing? Was he on the brink of masterful maturity? This is the worthwhile mystery, at least to this humble writer, and one I would give anything to solve.

So today, the biggest tragedy is not an unfinished story, but an unfinished life. Rest in peace, Edgar Allan Poe.

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